Culture  Urban hijacking: an interview with Videographer Stéphane Masson
06/12/201700:00 TV5MONDE
Photo credit: © Lumieres Hong Kong Festival

Inspired by Lyon's mega-huge annual event Fête des Lumières, Hong Kong welcomed Lumieres Hong Kong 2017, its first-ever lights festival back on November 23-25, 2017. TV5MONDE Asie-Pacifique had the chance to speak to Stéphane Masson, the artist who worked to transform the Former French Mission Building located in the Central district with his project Fish Tank.

In the spirit of the festival where "arts, light and heritage" met at an artistic junction, we chatted with Stéphane at Mei Ho House, an ex-public housing estate located in Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon, which has now been classified as a Grade B heritage building by the Hong Kong government. Sitting down at the café inside the building which is now a youth hostel, Stéphane shared with us stories of his artistic career, his inspirations, his impressions of Hong Kong and more.
An interview with the artist at the historic Mei Ho House in Shek Kip Mei district, Hong Kong.

Stéphane, can you tell us how you became a videographer?
I knew I wanted to be a videographer and an artist when I was 10 years old. I think it is impossible to force yourself to do something you don’t love, or rather, we can only make real progress when we do things we love. During my studies I encountered a street theatre company in Nantes called Royal de Luxe which had a lot of installations all over the city. I remember going to school one day and saw a car stuck in a tree. This was (one of many of) my Eureka moments. Soon enough I began to work as a lighting designer for a local theatre. I learnt and started creating short films, showing them in Toulouse, France. It worked so well that the mayor of Toulouse asked us to put on a small-scale show. In the show I made use of a lot of lighting techniques and it inspired me to create many light-based gadgets, eventually leading me to participating in bigger festivals.

Is this your first time in Hong Kong or in Asia? What is your first impression of the city?
I hav been to China, Vietnam and Singapore, but this is the first time I really spent a bit more time in Hong Kong. What I like about Hong Kong is the local people's sense of curiosity. They want to incorporate cultural activities in their day-to-day lives.
Fish Tank transformed this heritage building into a giant aquarium. © Lumieres Hong Kong Festival

In Hong Kong, the majority of the buildings are usually lit. This is not the case for Lyon or other European cities. Did you find this to be a challenge or an occasion to try something different?
In France, buildings are not lit the same as they are here in Hong Kong. Sometimes I do find the Hong Kong’s lights to be overwhelming and unnecessary. I think this is reflective of Chinese values, where quantity is often perceived as better. It reminds me of many Chinese dinners which I have been a part of where the host kept offering me more food than needed.

This is what makes doing light installations here interesting. I want to offer what you may call a French touch, but with less means, being non-competitive against all those lights and where the main objective is to surprise the audience.
Your installation is one of the few unaccompanied by music. Is there a reason for it?
This is something I regret about this installation. The original music which accompanies the show really adds an extra dimension to it, as you can hear the rippling of the water, the flapping of the fins, etc. When I was here in July and we saw the amount of commuter traffic below the site, we thought it was not worthwhile to put on the sound. Now that I think about it, even if the sound effect came through intermittently, it would have reinforced the magic of the presentation.
Another challenge is that it was very difficult to transform this heritage building in its entirety, as authorisation was not the easiest to obtain. Normally I would use projectors to cast the light show but LED lights were used instead. It worked well, but I find the effect to be not as natural nor smooth, and the imagery appears to be less defined than a video projector could have done.

Former French Mission Building, located in the Central district in Hong Kong. © Lumieres Hong Kong Festival
What was your first impression of the Former French Mission Building?
It is magnificent. The building reminds me of Le Capitole (municipal administration building for the city of Toulouse) in my city. What I love the most is that it does not appear engulfed, despite all those skyscrapers right next to it. Being perched on the hill there is also a green space right behind.

You have showcased your past creation, Fish Tank, in Lumieres Hong Kong. Would you say the building inspired you to employ the same idea?
Fish Tank was first exhibited in 2008 as a commission from the Toulouse Cultural Centre. It was very well received. I find fishes to be a motif which can be easily understood across cultures and I wanted to present this idea to the audience in Hong Kong.

You have mentioned in your bio that the element of surprise is essential to your work. Do you think you have delivered this idea during this festival?
As I have told you, back when I saw those funky installations on the streets of Nantes, it put a great smile on my face. It made me felt good. Sometimes just stepping outside the comforts of your home is not pleasant. I attribute great importance to street art and this idea of giving joy is what I wish to achieve with Fish Tank.
During the three days which Lumieres Hong Kong took place, there were moments when I just stood around or across the street from my installation. When cars stop at the traffic light, I’ll see taxi drivers get so taken aback when they notice the lights on top. The same goes for pedestrians. They would pause, look, had a fun moment, and move on. People always have different preferences and I am satisfied that I delivered something which would have catered to the taste of some of the festival goers.
Aquarium Car, a different version of the Fish Tank project, in one of its European exhibitions. ©
Heritage buildings in Hong Kong are much younger than in France. How do you perceive this difference in time? Does it do something different for you in terms of artistic inspiration?
Surely you would notice that a lot of heritage buildings in Paris, for example, date to centuries ago. Still, even if a building is only about 30 years old, for me it carries with it stories of people which are unique to its own. I do not believe a building needs to be old in contemporary terms in order for me to be creative with it.

Hong Kong reminds me of New York in some way, where things happen fast and where the urban landscape dramatically changes in a matter of decades. Sometimes all these changes can standardise things and make them banal, but it could create something beautiful as well.

How long did it take for you to prepare your installation?
As I have done this installation plenty of times, it took only a few months for the installation to be completed. This is however the first time where a technical team took care of all the lighting installations.

When do you consider your work to be a success?
My response is simple and echoing what I've said before: when my audience smiles upon seeing my work, I define that as my success.
Supercube, one of his signature pieces, will be featured in the 2018 Lichtfestival in Ghent, Belgium.
Any upcoming projects in the near future?
I will be presenting Supercube in a festival in France and soon after I will be going to Ghent, Belgium to participate in Lichtfestival. I also have a semi-permanent collaboration with the Singapore Art Museum. I am definitely looking forward to a productive, busy year! 
A huge thank you to Stéphane and best of luck with all of your future endeavours! To wrap things up, here's a dose of Hong Kong culture: the script on the wall is a popular vernacular expression in Hong Kong Cantonese, literally meaning "yo, that's awesome".
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